Reward-Based Training is for All Our Pets

And it can teach us about ourselves too. Highlights from the first Train for Rewards blog party.

Reward-based training is for all our pets, including cats as well as dogs. Photo is portrait of a little dog and a tabby cat
Photo: Rosie love/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Recently, I invited fellow bloggers to join me in writing about reward-based training of our companion animals. I did not know how many (if any) would want to join in. So when the big day came and 25 other bloggers joined me in sharing posts on this topic, I was delighted.

I was especially pleased that dogs, cats and horses were all represented, because dogs aren’t the only animals that need training.

Reward-based training for dogs, cats, horses...

“Nobody bats an eye if you talk about dog training, but mention cat training one time and the couch delivery guys give you a look and refuse your offer of a glass of water (obviously spiked with a crazy cat training potion). The perception that cats are untrainable is false, and it can hinder happy unions between cats and their people. Dogs and cats learn every day, and through training, we can harness the associations they make — even explicitly create associations — and improve lives,” wrote Julie Hecht on her Scientific American blog Dog Spies.

If you’re in doubt that cats might sometimes need training, just ask yourself what happens when you get the cat carrier out to take your cat to the vet. If your cat goes in willingly as soon as you open the door and say ‘in’, give yourself a huge pat on the back. But if your cat runs to hide under the sofa and can only be shoved in backwards, scratching you in the process, after you’ve spent ten minutes chasing him around the room, you might want to check out this post by Dr. Sarah Ellis for Katzenworld Blog on how to train your cat to like their carrier. It has the solution to every carrier-training problem and has videos too.

We can expect increased interest in cat training with the upcoming publication of Drs. John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis’s book, The Trainable Cat.

Hopefully this will have a knock-on effect: if we can train cats with rewards, why do some people still use physical punishment on dogs? It makes me think of Lili Chin’s poster about wild animals: “if we can teach wild animals without force or punishment, we can also train our best friends without force or punishment.”

Lili Chin poster of wild animals who have been trained with rewards
Poster by Lili Chin used under Creative Commons licence

To make this very point, Debbie Jacobs put together a compilation of videos of animals being trained (an alligator, mice, a parrot, rabbit…).

The Importance of Choice and How it Feels to Train an Animal

Other posts also have relevance across species. Dr. Dorothy Heffernan wrote about her work with a fearful horse, and the importance of agency  – giving him the choice whether or not to interact with her. “We can teach children so that they can take control… and we can also teach our horses in such a way that they have more control.  We can teach them to tell us when they’re ready for us to do things, rather than making that decision for them, and the magical thing about this is that if we do it right, it doesn’t make them less likely to participate, it makes them more willing and interested to work with us.”

I have been doing something similar with a fearful dog recently – giving him the choice of whether or not to interact with me, and rewarding him every time he does.

In order to do this, writes Heffernan, “we have to give up some of our own control, some of our own agency.  We have to step back and acknowledge that another animal – a member of another species – has feelings and opinions about what we want to do to them…”

Mikel Delgado also considered what it feels like to train another animal, in this case her cat. “…it has been surprising to me how I have responded to the training process. I’ve read a lot about training methods; I’ve studied learning theory; I train my clients to train their cats. But I was a bit underprepared for what it actually feels like to train an animal when the training doesn’t happen as easily as the lazy trainer within me had hoped it would.” The problems – and solutions – she lists, such as breaking the training down into small increments, apply whatever species we are training.

Skills, Preparation, and a Feeling of Magic

If you want to see video of a trained cat, check out Dan Raymer’s cat Alice doing a trick. Notice how she gets a piece of chicken every time she sits pretty.

“This is what positive training is all about. It’s a means to physically show your dog that he or she made a choice you like. It’s as simple as ‘sit – gets a treat’. Or as complicated as teaching the dog to search for a lost person,” writes Karen Wild.

Rewards can also be used to facilitate toilet-training, as Joan Hunter Mayer reminds us.

Some tasks are easier than others, but one of the things about training is that it’s a skill that can be learned. Although the concept is easy, some aspects take practice; and don’t forget the preparation that goes into a dog training session, writes Helen Verte: "Take the time you need to prepare before you add the dog" (I especially enjoyed the video of Dudley’s face as he waits hopefully for his reward…).

One thing some people struggle to learn is the idea that we can use rewards to teach a dog (or other pet) to do something we want, instead of focusing on the 'bad' behaviours. "Wouldn’t it be much better if you showed your dog how they can succeed from the start? This is easily achieved by first teaching your dog behaviours that you approve of. If these behaviours are incompatible with the behaviours you don’t like, bingo!" says Sylvie Martin.

It’s great to see a happy, motivated dog working to earn a reward. “Some people find it magical to see the intensity for which a dog will work to eat—it is, after all, a very basic motivation," says Jean Donaldson (Academy for Dog Trainers).

She wasn't the only one to refer to a feeling of magic. One perhaps surprising thing about training a dog or other animal is the way it can teach us something about ourselves, too. Being open to learning is an important part of training, says Dr. Helen Spence in her post Unleash the magic. “I believe that learning to train this way is not only enriching for our animals, it is highly enriching, even life changing, for us as individuals.”

And if you’re not sure where to get started with using rewards for your dog, Kristi Benson’s four things humans do that dogs love will give you some ideas.

Summary and an Invitation

Reward-based training is for all our pets, dogs and cats. Photo shows a happy Siberian Husky puppy.
Photo: Africa Studio
Reward-based training is for all our companion animals. At a basic level, it’s accessible to all and can already have a profound effect on our pet’s behaviour. It can feel, at times, either frustrating or magical. As we learn the technical aspects, we not only become more proficient trainers, we also learn something about ourselves.

I’ve only touched on some of the themes here. If you haven’t seen all the posts yet, it’s well worth checking out the Train for Rewards Blog Party.

Thank you to everyone who took part, whether by writing and/or sharing the posts.

Several people have already asked me if I’ll do it again sometime. Don’t you think there should be one day a year when we celebrate what reward-based training can do for our companion animals? Let’s do it all again on June 16th 2017!

In the meantime, if you use rewards to train your pet and would like a photo to be considered for inclusion in a future Companion Animal Psychology post, share it with me on twitter with the hashtag #Train4Rewards, or under this post on Facebook. (Please ensure you have copyright of the photo). Thank you!

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